When Nick Boles agreed to be interviewed by ConservativeHome, it seemed likely he would want to talk about planning, which is his area of ministerial responsibility. Paul Goodman was among those who expressed amazement that after the recent reshuffle, the Department of Communities and Local Government was left with no fewer than four under-secretaries, including Boles, but no minister of state to lead the drive to build more houses.
Boles dismissed this point with the words: “You know what, are there more than 300 people in the world who know the difference between a minister of state and an under-secretary?”
He was instead anxious to talk about his deep hostility to the proposed Royal Charter on press regulation: “There’s nothing we’ve done that troubles me as much as this.” It is clear from what follows that Boles would shed no tears if the press manages to destroy the charter.
Why then are the Conservatives supporting the charter, and asking the press to do so? Boles said the “strongest argument” put by Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, “was that if it didn’t go through, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would do something much worse through explicit statutory legislation rather than this constitutional contraption of the Royal Charter. She was very explicit that it was for fear of something worse that she was urging the press to take a role in this.”
Boles says the Conservatives have been forced by their coalition partners to go for the charter: “If you ask yourself a simple question, ‘Would a Conservative-only government be doing this?’, I think the answer is unquestionably ‘No’.”
He wishes this hostility to the charter to be known: “I think we need to be able as Conservatives to say, ‘We would not be doing this if we were in government on our own. We’re doing it partly because we’re in coalition, and partly to prevent something much worse happening.’ And there’s quite a pragmatic Tory tradition of doing things you don’t much like to prevent worse things happening. And I guess the other thing that’s worth saying is that because of Conservative reluctance there are some quite important facts about the structure that’s being proposed, and the first one which I think is most important is that it does not compel any publisher of any news publication to co-operate with it. All it does is create this [pressure to co-operate] through the punitive damages. So there is absolutely no legal reason why any newspaper publisher needs to play along with it.”
Boles observed that the proposed arrangements break new ground: “The second thing I think I’d say as a good Conservative is that this is a pretty big constitutional innovation, both the creation of a state-sponsored system of press regulation, but also the use of a Royal Charter and the Privy Council, which is the repository of the royal prerogative – Alice in Wonderland terms. I think it would be a very, very reasonable thing for the press to want to do, to establish whether each and every one of the steps that has been undertaken to set up these structures has been properly undertaken. I don’t think therefore that there’s any more reason to assume that they should join it, or that they should accept that it’s the best way of doing it.”
Boles defended the Prime Minister: “David Cameron was very clear that he did not want to cross the Rubicon. I think he’s right to say that what’s being proposed does not cross the Rubicon, because it doesn’t statutorily compel press compliance. I think we can all agree that we have our feet uncomfortably wet.”
ConHome: “This analogy breaks down eventually, because Rubicons either are or are not crossed.”
ConHome: “Are you urging the press not to play along with this?”
Boles: “I tell you what I’m urging, I think they have full legal rights, this is a very, very big constitutional innovation, using a mechanism that is itself a pretty arcane piece of constitutional machinery, and I think it would be surprising if they didn’t need to subject that to pretty close scrutiny.”
ConHome: “So does that mean going to Europe?”
Boles: “I’m not a lawyer, I wouldn’t seek to advise them, I’m just simply observing we’re doing this because we’re trying to prevent something worse. There ain’t no enthusiasm, certainly in my breast… Do you remember what they tried to do with the Defamation Bill? That was much worse…There’s no question that they were going to be able to insist on that or completely gum up the legislative programme of the Government. I think the argument that we avoid something worse is one I buy which is why I can just about swallow it. But just because I can swallow it doesn’t mean I think anyone else has to. And it was striking that the Conservative members who spoke in last week’s statement, I’m not sure there was a single one from the back bench who spoke in favour of it, it was overwhelmingly negative, and that’s because it’s not a very Conservative thing.”
This is true: when Miller outlined the proposals on Tuesday of last week, Conservative backbenchers were uniformly hostile.
Boles believes that by their behaviour over press freedom, the Liberal Democrats have shown that they are not liberal: “And what that led me to ask is ‘At the next general election, which is the freedom party?’ And I think it’s kind of important that we are very clear as Conservatives that we must be the freedom party. Obviously Labour is not going to be the freedom party, because that’s not who they are. But in a contest between us and the Liberal Democrats it is a seriously important question, which of us is the freedom party.
“One of the strands that connects Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and modern Conservatives is freedom under the rule of law. We do not believe in freedom under the watchful eye and wagging finger of a state-sponsored regulator. There are lots of laws that regulate the press – bribery, libel, official secrets, those laws are right and proper and we as Conservatives back them.
“When you look at the Liberal Democrats what I find completely amazing is how they can carry on spouting guff about Gladstone and liberalism, and put Liberal next to their names on the ballot paper, while co-operating with statist Labour to try to bring in a much more draconian system of state regulation of the press. Don’t pretend you’re Liberals when you do this.
“This is an opportunity for us. What we see clearly, 19 months from an election, is that they are going to be doing two things, one of which is they are going to try to paint us as the nasty party, and the other of which is they are going to try to claw back some of the left-wing voters who they had in 2005 and 2010 and have lost to Labour. So they are going to be going after the Guardian reader. And that will lead them into illiberal positions.
“It gives us the opportunity to say, particularly to this new generation who all of this polling suggests are much less inclined to rely on or trust the state, ‘We are not only the party that is going to back your aspirations, but we’re also the party that is going to protect your freedom to develop your property as you like or live your life as you like – to get married if you’re gay – we should be the party of freedom under the law.
“I think it’s interesting, a straw in the wind, Jeremy Browne’s defenestration [his sacking from the Home Office in the Lib Dem reshuffle]. It was amazing to everyone at Westminster. Every journalist would have said he was one of the strongest, most appealing, most sensible Liberal Democrats. I hope that we are really saying to him and to other proper Liberals, there is a home for you here. Gladstone if he was picking now would probably have picked us. Certainly Margaret Thatcher thought so. We need to tell the Jeremy Brownes of the world that liberal conservatism is the place you belong.
“It’s very symbolic, that decision by Nick Clegg. He’s sort of saying that that kind of liberalism is not what my pitch is at the next election. I want bluntly a more left-wing kind.”
Boles’s remarks are all the more striking because as he himself says, he has been “an unashamed coalitionist”. He admitted that there has been “a sobering up” but claimed also an “underlying consistency” in his view of how the Conservatives should co-operate with the Liberal Democrats: “The underlying theory is what I’ve always called the boa constrictor theory, which is that you hug them close and then you hug them closer. So the idea was that you have a coalition with them, they broadly speaking lose their left-wing support, which is what has happened, you offer them the opportunity to stand as coalition liberals, which they hopefully would do at the second election, and then after the second election the logic would be that like Liberal Unionists they join a new party that might be called the Liberal Conservatives but would basically be a more liberal Conservative Party, which is obviously the place I’d like to be. The sobering up is that they’ve made it very, very clear they don’t want to do that. They see as their strategic imperative to go into coalition with the Left next time if the numbers stack up, because that would tell their audience that they are a true centrist party and a swing player.”
So Boles’s new position is that the Tories “should be wooing sensible true Liberals, i.e. Liberals who actually believe in freedom, to join the Conservative Party.”
Boles ended with a declaration of his deep personal support for a press free of political interference: “I have been properly monstered by the Mail and the Telegraph on occasion, I’ve had some front pages accusing me of a war on the countryside and all that. But I absolutely think they must always feel no constraint at all about doing it. And I do not want a press that minds its Ps and Qs. My personal view is that the Guardian has been dangerously irresponsible with all this Snowden stuff, and my own personal view is that it was offensive for the Mail to accuse Ralph Miliband of hating Britain. But I also think that my view is totally irrelevant, and must always be totally irrelevant, as is the view, the opinion of every politician about what the press writes.”